Early in the 16th century, as the Ottoman and Safavid empires fought for control of the Middle East, Selim the Grim, ruling from Istanbul, indulged his artistic side by composing distinguished poetry in Persian, then the Middle East’s language of high culture. Simultaneously, Ismail I, ruling from Esfahan, wrote poetry in Turkish, his ancestral language.
This juxtaposition comes to mind as the populations of Turkey and Iran engage in another exchange. As the secular Turkey founded by Ataturk threatens to disappear under a wave of Islamism, the Islamist Iranian state founded by Ruhollah Khomeini apparently teeters on the brink of secularism. Ironically,Turks wish to live like Iranians and Iranians like Turks.
Turkey and Iran are large, influential and relatively advanced Muslim-majority countries, historically central, strategically placed and widely watched. As they cross paths while racing in opposite directions, which I predicted back in 1994, their destinies will affect not just the future of the Middle East but potentially the entire Muslim world.
That is happening. Let’s review each country’s evolution:
Turkey: Ataturk nearly removed Islam from public life in the period 1923-38. Over the decades, however, Islamists fought back, and by the 1970s, they formed part of a ruling coalition. In 1996-97, they even headed a government. Islamists took power following the strange elections of 2002, when winning a third of the vote secured them two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. Ruling with caution and competence, they got nearly half the vote in 2007, at which point, their gloves came off and the bullying began, from a wildly excessive fine levied against a media critic to harebrained conspiracy theories against the armed forces. Islamists won 58 percent of the vote in a September referendum and appear set to win the next parliamentary election, due by June 2011.
Should Islamists win the next election, that likely will establish the premise for them to remain enduringly in power, during which they will bend the country to fit their will, instituting Islamic law (Shariah) and building an Islamic order resembling Khomeini’s idealized polity.
Iran: Khomeini did the opposite of Ataturk, making Islam politically dominant during his reign of 1979-89, but it soon thereafter began to falter, with discordant factions emerging, the economy failing and the populace distancing itself from the regime’s extremist rule. By the 1990s, foreign observers expected the regime to fail soon. Despite their populace’s growing disillusionment, the increased sway of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and the coming to power of hardened veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, as symbolized by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, imbued it with a second wind.
This reassertion of Islamist goals also increased the people’s alienation from the regime, including a turn away from Islamic practices and toward secularism. The country’s growing pathologies, including rampant drug use, pornography and prostitution, point to the depths of its problems. Alienation sparked anti-regime demonstrations in the aftermath of fraudulent elections in June 2009. The repression that followed spurred yet more anger at the authorities.
A race is under way - except it is not an even competition, given that Islamists rule in both capitals, Ankara and Tehran. Looking ahead, Iran represents the Middle East’s greatest danger and its greatest hope. Its nuclear buildup, terrorism, ideological aggression and formation of a “resistance bloc” present a truly global threat, ranging from a jump in the price of oil and gas to an electromagnetic pulse attack on the United States. But if these dangers can be navigated, controlled and subdued, Iran has a unique potential to lead Muslims out of the dark night of Islamism toward a more modern, moderate and good-neighborly form of Islam. As in 1979, that achievement likely will affect Muslims far and wide.
Contrarily, while the Turkish government presents few immediate dangers, its more subtle application of Islamism’s hideous principles makes it loom large as a future threat. Long after Khomeini and Osama bin Laden are forgotten, I venture, Mr. Erdogan and his colleagues will be remembered as the inventors of a more lasting and insidious form of Islamism.
Thus may today’s most urgent Middle Eastern problem country become tomorrow’s leader of sanity and creativity while the West’s most stalwart Muslim ally over five decades turns into the greatest source of hostility and reaction. Extrapolation is a mug’s game; the wheel turns, and history springs surprises.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East Forum and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.